The Central Coast is burning down— and no, I'm not kidding. The Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Ventana Wilderness, my community, have been ablaze with fires for the past few weeks. Big Sur has been on the edge of destruction since the weekend, and if you can read a satellite map, be prepared for a shock.
The air is orange and choking gray with smoke, the heat like an iron. In my neighborhood, 20 miles from from the nearest burn, there've been swarms of winged insects crowding the windows and doorways. You can drive past smoldering ruins and still-flaming burns down Highway 1. The lightning strikes over last Saturday ignited over 800 fires across the state of California, and most of them aren't reported in any daily newspaper.
Some of the local fires are arson; like the one in Bonny Doon. Another, the Trabing Fire, has been determined to be a car exhaust-pipe accident that closed down the entire interstate. Then we have the epidemic ignitions by lightning strikes, that get called "acts of God" because no one can digest an act of ecology. We wouldn't blink at this point if frogs started falling out of the sky.
You might've heard a bit about our "town" fire— but even more frightening, at this moment, is the destruction of Big Sur, where many of my friends live, who've now been made homeless.
Many of you have visited the coastal oasis of Big Sur, the inspiration of Henry Miller, Jaime de Angulo, Edward Weston, Robinson Jeffers, Richard Brautigan, Esalen, Hunter Thompson— the muse-place of more 1960s inspirations than one can count.
Modern photography, psychotherapy as we know it, the Beat culture and all its literary influence, icons of California architecture-- this is where it was inspired. Big Sur has drawn mavericks and DIYers of every portal, including our beloved Bob Nash, who died just a month ago. I find myself sick with relief that Bob didn't see this; it's unbearable.
I can't tell you how this is going to end. Local residents and Forest Service people are going at it with their bare hands, bulldozing everything in sight to defend their homes. Everyone is primed to evacuate, if they haven't been already; all are displaced. Here's a tip from one veteran of previous fires:
If you know anyone who may be in the line of the fire, get your livestock trailers and trucks there right now.
Do not call them and ask if they need help, because by the time they need help it will be too late.
Even if they don't have pets and livestock, a livestock, horse, or utility trailer can haul just about anything.
If you are in the line of the fire and have not prepared for it, you may be too late— however, if you have cleared all the underbrush out 100 feet from your buildings, start working on the next 200 feet.
Close all windows and doors and seal up all vents into your house.
Fill all bath tubs, buckets, etc. with water.
Take down all window dressings.
If you stay, which I did and saved my house, be prepared to take shelter and let the fire burn over the top of you, then come out and put the fire out if you can.
We had folks we didn't even know stop and take all of our livestock. People can be really nice in times like this.
When the fire passes do not be surprised if it comes back and down the mountain at you again.
The wind will dictate all.
These areas are difficult to talk about in terms of fire defense, because the wilderness demands its own burn ecology to renew from time to time, and this locale has been way overdue— for decades. In the meantime, families have dug in; it's rural living and residents are maniacal about fire safety.
There's an extra edge to the smoke, that goes beyond the inevitable natural crises: Our country has, for some time, been unable to provide the infrastructure to deal with disasters.
I'm not just talking about for the hermit who's off the grid. Everyone in California is mindful of the terrible floods in the Mid-West, and that leads to the all-too-obvious reminders of Katrina. A bridge collapses in Minnesota, and everyone knows that bridge should have been repaired or replaced ages ago. I'm sure all of you could tell me about something in your area that is a public hazard, overdue for repair, a "disaster waiting to happen," and yet nothing happens 'cause there's "no money."
Meanwhile, we see the latest gas prices, and read about the exploding number of multi-millionaires— who still can't fucking pass through the eye of any needle— and you just want to explode.
Of course the government can't arrive at your side, like Superman, to scoop you up when the clouds of locusts arrive. But we know that many of the crises we're having today are because the roads ain't fixed, they laid off the rescue workers, the repairs went unfunded.
We have no tax base in our state to cope with our problems, and it's not because California isn't still golden with profits. The corporate taxes are so low here, it's beyond reckless. We have the worst-funded schools in the nation— dead last. Our parks are closing, the streets are buckling, there's three cops in town to work the night shift, and the firemen haven't had an hour off in a month. They need ten times the numbers they have to cope with these fires.
People I know who work in public safety whisper to me about how shocked the public would be, if they only knew how undefended we really are. Well, it's pretty obvious, now. Anyone who wants to start a fire or rob a bank, just drop on by; our whole community is walking around with its pants down.
The individual acts of heroism in the past weeks, are, of course, inspiring. My friends in the thick of the smoke are relentless. They'll be marked by this forever.
I lost everything in 1979 when my home burned down— all my diaries from when I was a girl, my family letters, all the books and photographs. The stench was with me for years— and I found that this weekend's events sent me sobbing back under a blanket, like a child.
I have a quote scrawled on an old Greyhound bus map from my burn year: "Suffering is the Fire that Burns Away Desire." It reminds me that that the pain and burn are not only a metaphor, but sometimes one and the same. When you lose it all in a fire, you lose a lot of hope. You are afraid to hold onto anything, or want for something, because you never want to hurt like this again.
Photo Credit: View from Nepenthe webcam, Sunday night, and Partington Ridge on a clear day. Toby and Linda, I LOVE YOU!
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